Bell 407 GXi over Ft. Worth, Texas. Photo by Dan Parsons
With its 407GXi, Bell is offering the Navy an evolutionary upgrade to its TH-57 fleet, and the company is banking on the service seeing value in a modern version of the single-engine training helicopter it has now.
Based on a request for proposals published in October, the Navy is in the market for a commercial, off-the-shelf replacement for its TH-57 Sea Ranger training helicopter fleet. Plans are to start buying new trainers in fiscal 2020, just about 16 months from now, and have the entire TH-57 fleet divested by 2023.
The TH-57 Sea Ranger is based on the Bell 206 Jet Ranger, which also served as the basis of the Army’s now-retired OH-58 Kiowa armed scout helicopter. Bell’s offering to replace it is the most modern version of the 407 — the GXi.
Leonardo is offering its TH-119 single-engine helicopter for the program. Airbus is pitching its twin-engine H135.
“We think it’s the best value for them,” Colin Smith, Bell’s senior manager of military business, told R&WI. “We think it is the most affordable option for the Navy to go with a single-engine aircraft. Your direct operating costs are a lot lower in a single-engine aircraft.”
“We also feel it’s a low-risk offering for them as they go from the TH-57, which is a Bell aircraft, to continue with the Bell lineage of the aircraft,” he added. “That’s going to give them a common maintenance methodology.”
There are more than 1,500 407s in operation, accumulating more than 4.75 million flight hours, he said. The GXi improves on the legacy airframe with an advanced autopilot, an all-glass digital cockpit with Garmin 1000 touchscreen displays, a bird-strike-resistant polycarbonate windshield and other safety improvements.
The 407 GXi shares 1,000 part numbers and 25% of the tools required to maintain the TH-57, which entered service as the primary Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard training helicopter in 1968. The Navy added more-advanced B and C models to the fleet at Advanced Helicopter Training School at Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Milton, Florida, over the years. Planned TH-57D upgrades to standard digital cockpits never got off the ground.
“The 407 is the latest technology upgrade, so it’s not a direct transfer,” Smith said.
The MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter is built by Northrop Grumman from the Bell 407 airframe, so the Navy has some 407-specific parts in its supply chain. Manufactured at Bell’s Mirabel, Quebec, plant, 407 final assembly and kitting is done in the U.S.
The Navy did look at a TH-57D program briefly and they found it was not cost effective, given the age of the current airframes, according to Scott Clifton, director of global military business development. At more than 35 years old, the Navy would get more for its money buying new aircraft with the latest avionics technologies than to attempt retrofitting them into legacy aircraft, he said. Part of the relative rush to field a TH-57 replacement is an FAA requirement for ADS-B Out by 2020.
Having for decades trained on the TH-67 Creek helicopter, also based on the Bell 206, the Army now exclusively trains its rotorcraft pilots on the UH-72 Lakota, the military version of the Airbus H145. Leonardo also vied for that program, but was beat out by Airbus.
Being the incumbent gives Bell an edge on the competition because it has the experience to upgrade the aircraft and revamp the maintenance and training syllabus, Clifton said.
“Bell has been in business with the Navy for more than three decades,” he said. “Being the incumbent has given us the experience to look at the Navy and say, 'Look, you need not just a new airframe, but we can help you maybe make some adjustments to your syllabus, maybe make some adjustments to be more efficient.’”
“Intuitively, a Bell-to-Bell transition is going to be easier,” he said. “So the maintainers will walk out and they’ll look at the aircraft, and they’ll understand how it’s constructed — the design methodology — because it’s a Bell.”